Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Serial 120: Black Orchid

Doctor: Peter Davison (5th Doctor)
Companion: Nyssa, Tegan Jovanka, Adric

Written by: Terence Dudley
Directed by: Ron Jones

Editor's Note: Hey, kids. Matt here to intro Cassandra back for this week's blog. Don't worry, though. I'll be back next week for "fun" or something. (God help me). But for now, Cassandra's gonna take us through a lovely little two part Davison ditty. It's not very long, but let's be honest: there's not a whole lot to say (as she'll probably tell you). Enjoy!

Background & Significance: "Black Orchid" is an anomaly.

When Johnathan Nathan-Turner was planning for Peter Davison's inaugural season as the Doctor, he managed to get enough of a budget to make 28 episodes--two episodes up from the previous standard. Instead, however, he decided to allocate those two extra episodes to making the pilot of the failed spin-off show K-9 and Company. So much for that.

Now with two less episodes to make, and having a staunch aversion to the traditional six-part serial, JNT decided to go ahead and have a two-parter, which hadn't been seen on the show since "The Sontaran Experiment" way back in Tom Baker's first season.

Another thing that separates "Black Orchid" from the norm is that there are no sci-fi elements in the story at all. In fact, it's very much a standard murder mystery in the vein of an Agatha Christie novel, even taking place in 1920's England. In an era of Doctor Who marked very heavily by big science fiction concepts and ideas, this serial stands out much like a sore thumb.

But you don't necessarily need the big bendy concepts for a good Doctor Who adventure, which this serial proves quite well. While highly atypical, "Black Orchid" is a fun little interlude, which is exactly what our TARDIS crew needs before heading into something like "Earthshock" (the following serial). This story, in the context of the entirety of Season 19, serves as the calm before the storm, a simple, entertaining adventure before the plunge into the next.

It also serves as a sort of spotlight on Nyssa, which is great, because I love Nyssa. It's a nice highlight of Sarah Sutton's acting abilities, much in the way the previous story "Kinda" is for Janet Fielding, and "Earthshock" is for Matthew Waterhouse.

And murder mystery. Did I mention murder mystery? Everyone loves a murder mystery.

But enough of all that. Let's take a closer look, shall we?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Serial 86: The Masque of Mandragora

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companion: Sarah Jane Smith

Written by: Louis Marks
Directed by: Rodney Bennett

A Few Words: I know I'm not the first to tell you, but I'll say it anyways. Lis Sladen died yesterday.

It's hard to explain exactly how I'm feeling. Crushed, devastated, heartbroken. I guess that's some, but it doesn't come close. I know I've lost a dear friend and I'm sure it's something akin to that for you.

So... it's not right for me to not talk about it, so I will. But... I'll save my thoughts on that till we get to the end. For now, it'll be business as usual, so... if you haven't seen this one, go ahead and skip to the end cuz "Final Thoughts" this week is all about her, but let's be honest. No thoughts on Sarah Jane Smith could ever be final, so it's misnomery.

But first... to the business of the week, I suppose. Please to enjoy.

Background & Significance: Sometimes Robert Holmes might have been wrong.

I only say that because Holmes himself was very outspoken about history-based stories and how he thought they were away from the inherent sci-fi show that he perceived Doctor Who to be.

Now, I don't think Robert Holmes is wrong in any of these sentiments. For one thing, Doctor Who is up to the viewer to interpret what they do or do not think the show is/should be. Some people hate UNIT stories. Some people hate this Gothic era. Me? I'm not a huge fan of the campy fantasy of the Graham Williams era, but I think Robert Holmes has a point. I, personally, am not huge on the historical stories as much as I'm into pseudo-historical stories. I like them, don't get me wrong. Some of them are remarkably strong and I look forward to seeing more. They're just overall not my favourite things in the world. I'd rather go watch something that's got a bit more flair.

But about this story...

It's interesting that despite being so against historical-based stories, Holmes wrote three himself, "The Pyramids of Mars" and "The Talons of Weng-Chiang", "The Time Warrior" and oversaw the scripting of two others: "Horror of Fang Rock" and this.

What I feel like Holmes dials into with all of these stories is a definite infusion of the sci-fi we all know he loves while simultaneously blending in a healthy dose of history, aided by the lovely BBC costume department, which does period drama like nothing else.

That's not to say he didn't have reservations in doing these stories. He was really very against "The Masque of Mandragora" until the addition of a big ol' sci-fi bent, and while I sympathize with Holmes's reservations, I really do feel he managed to pull it all around to turn in a kickass historical story that fits right in his era.

Not only that, but it definitely strengthens the era and this season as a whole. In a lot of ways, "The Masque of Mandragora" is the first in a seven shot salvo that sends out this truly epic and wonderful era out with a bang. It really feels like the first in a new season of an even more refined and focused tone. We're still full of gothic horror we got in the last season. But now it's been more refined and polished so that it's looking more and more like something that they're continuing to dial in on in the best of ways.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Break out the Renaissance way-back-machine.

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Serial 38: The Abominable Snowmen

Doctor: Patrick Troughton (2nd Doctor)
Companion: Jamie, Victoria

Written by: Mervyn Haisman & Henry Lincoln
Directed by: Gerald Blake

Background & Significance: When putting together and determining the order for this (what I assume many, many people consider "infernal") popcorning order, I try to make it so that we here at Classical Gallifrey don't spend too much time focusing on any particular set of sequential stories in both "the grand scheme" of the blog itself or in terms of the chronology of a particular Doctor. Granted, saying that now comes just after covering The Return of The Master trilogy, but you know what? Box sets are cool.

But here we are. At the thematic start of the Troughton era.

It's strange that the last Troughton we talked about just last month was "Tomb of the Cybermen" (and oh holy god how good was that even still!) and this, "The Abominable Snowmen" comes from Troughton's next sequential story. Not intentional, I can assure you.

And yet, I almost feel like it continues a oeuvre unique to Troughton. "Tomb of the Cybermen" comes from Troughton's second season, and yet it doesn't seem to fit the mold of those stories that came directly after it. Troughton's second season (season five in the overall scope of the show) is a season that many have referred to as "Monster"-based. It's here that we have The Doctor going up against Cybermen, an introduction to The Ice Warriors (who will return in the next season), evil seaweed, more Cybermen (do Cybermats count? NO NO WE'RE NOT TALKING CYBERMEN), and the Yeti, who appear in this story and a story just a little later called called "The Web of Fear". Which I know we'll talk about eventually.

So in a lot of ways, "The Abominable Snowmen" is the kick off for this era of monsters and it's a real fitting place to start now that I feel comfortable discussing stories that are at least partially missing. But it's also important for other things.

The most obvious, as we talked about just a second ago (literally! Just seconds!) is the start of this Parade of Monsters, and famous monsters at that, although this is (ironically) not their most famous of stories even though you'd totally expect it to be. The Yeti are legends in their own rights, but not for this story. I mean, every time we're reminded about the Yeti, we're reminded of  how many times The Brigadier fought The Yeti (but in the London Underground)?

But that's a different story ("Web of Fear"! Coming eventually!). This is the start of something different. For one thing, this is the return of the long story, which would prevail all throughout the rest of Troughton's era. The past two seasons of the show made a concerted effort to tell smaller, less rambly four part stories, but every story from here until Troughton's departure in "The War Games" is more than four parts (excepting one), and it... shows. And it hurts the overall result of the era, I think. Longer stories feel more epic and sprawling and big and old school and all that, but that only works if you can effectively fill the time with something compelling (See "The War Games" or "The Invasion"). This is one of those stories that suffers from being not only six parts but also missing. I think it'd be different if I wasn't having to deal with bootleg/fan re-constructions of events because episode two (as we'll discuss) is a total change in everything what with being able to see it.

But thank goodness it survives in whatever form and we get to talk Troughton some more and so soon (and even more soon too!). It's also the return of Innes Lloyd as producer and Peter Bryant as script editor after a small detour we got in "Tomb of the Cybermen". And it's nice to see him back. I find I quite like Innes Lloyd and what he brings to the show overall. And then we also get some more Victoria (always cool) and Jamie (although it's not his best) and we get to start talking about this big ol' procession of Monsters thing that will persist throughout the rest of Troughton's era. And I love that we get to talk about all that.

Sigh. I just wish it all existed and only existed as a four parter.

So let's get to it!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Serial 62: The Sea Devils

Doctor: Jon Pertwee (3rd Doctor)
Companion: Jo Grant

Written by: Malcolm Hulke
Directed by: Michael Briant

Editor's Note: So we're back again after our month of celebration with yet another great story, in this case some Malcolm Hulke and "the return of the Silurians" in a way. But I'm not reviewing it. Guest-friend Cassandra is, but I'll be back next week for... something of an experiment. We'll see how that goes... But enough of me! Let's get to her!

Background & Significance: Let's talk about the sea, shall we?

In the history of Doctor Who, very rarely will you see a story set on water. Which is understandable, considering the trickiness of filming in such conditions, and also the considerable expenses of pulling it off. I imagine producer Barry Letts saw it as something of a challenge, because he specifically wanted to set a story in such circumstances when in the midst of planning out Season 9, Jon Pertwee's third season as the Doctor.

What ultimately became of this ambition is "The Sea Devils." Written by Malcolm Hulke, this would see the quasi-return of the Silurians, the main focus in his script from his story two seasons previous.

But it would also see the return of the Master, who hadn't been seen in a while. The Master had appeared in all of the stories in the previous season, but the Doctor Who team realized that this was a lot of overexposure for the character, and so decided to limit his appearances. So this story picks up from where we left off, with the Master in prison (which is actually more awesome than it sounds).

Aside from just a return of some villains and the decision to have a story set on and alongside the sea, I think "The Sea Devils" does some rather remarkable things as far as characters are concerned; which is rather surprising, considering the fact that this was the early 70s, and the emphasis on character development instead of plot was really a rare, almost unheard of thing. But the return of not only the Master, but the Silurians (the Sea Devils being their aquatic cousins) meant that this was to serve as a sort of sequel or companion piece to that previous story, with all of the baggage and repercussions that implies.

But enough of all that. Let's take a closer look, shall we?